While critics hail Ernesto Valverde as boring and brand his Barcelona team as dull, no-drama stability is just what the league leaders and Leo Messi need
Sure, the general consensus will be that Lionel Messi is simply the greatest, the GOAT and the most brilliant player right now in the world. But let’s not downplay how things have developed in the past when dealing with him.
It was always tricky, the Messi subject. He has been usually compared to a tyrant in the locker room by his detractors, allegedly bossing around managers and team-mates, unable to be controlled or channeled properly by big names such as ‘Tata’ Martino, Luis Enrique, Pep Guardiola, etc. He was even accused of appointing and disposing of managers himself.
And somehow, a low-profile coach has done the job. Under Ernesto Valverde, Messi has been able to become the best Messi, the most mature Messi, the most assisting Messi and the most scoring Messi. And he’s 31, well past his physical prime.
When FC Barcelona announced that Valverde would extend his contract one more season, with an option for another extra year, you could hear a significant amount of Barça fans groaning and complaining from almost everywhere.
If things go smoothly, he will could be Barça’s manager until June 2021. That would complete the traditional three-year-plus cycle that every successful manager has had in this century: Luis Enrique (2015-2017), Guardiola (2008-2012) or Frank Rijkaard (2003-2008) are the best examples to date.
Why is Valverde diminished as a manager?
The question begs an answer: is Barça’s current run in LaLiga, seven points over Atlético Madrid, nine over Real Madrid, and the fact that the team is still alive both in Copa del Rey and in the Champions League, a product of Valverde’s good managerial skills? Or is he simply a polite, professional coach who is only there to announce the line-ups and trust the quality of his players?
Obviously, picking door number one makes the most sense.
Valverde is an excellent coach. No doubt about that. I’ve seen that myself in his short stint in Valencia CF, transforming a mess of a team into Champions League-contender material in a matter of months. He did a good job in Bilbao with a few crucial young players developing under him (Iñaki Williams or Iker Muniain come to mind), good enough to be worthy of Barça’s phone call when Luis Enrique left.
However, he doesn’t flaunt it in anyone’s face. He doesn’t talk about his resume or the conquests in his (pretty long) career as a manager. He doesn’t sit well with controversy and almost never spills juicy voice-pops in his pressers. He arguably could be defined as ‘boring’, actually.
And that’s exactly what FC Barcelona need nowadays. A club with such inner turmoil again and again, with the Neymar drama a few summers ago, the club president Josep Maria Bartomeu constantly jumping from one mess to the next, Ousmane Dembelé’s antics in the headlines, Philippe Coutinho being scrutinized due to his poor performances… And in the middle of everything, a small man (Txingurri, his nickname, actually means ‘ant’ in Basque) weathering the storm with quite a bit of skill, trying to contextualize everything and downplay its relevance in the grand scheme of things.
But Valverde has also merits to boot on the pitch. He carried away the transition of the post Xavi and Iniesta years seemingly effortlessly by taking a page from Luis Enrique’s book and favouring counter-attacks and fast breaks. In that sense, Ivan Rakitic has grown into a crucial part of the team, and Arthur Melo keeps impressing in his rookie season at Camp Nou.
With untouchables such as Messi and Luis Suarez, his biggest challenges remain coming up with a third reliable striker (as Paco Alcácer wasn’t fully taken advantage of back in the day) and slowly but steadily work towards the next big loss in the midfield, which will be Sergio Busquets in the next few seasons.
Should Ernesto be able to find the perfect fit to that defensive midfielder position, he would have a nice set of tools towards his future goals… well, as long as Leo Messi keeps being Leo Messi.
By the way, few people will pinpoint this: Valverde has been the only manager able to persuade Messi so far that he actually needs to rest every few games to develop his potential to the fullest. That should count for something, right?